Wide Sargasso Sea

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Wide Sargasso Sea- Jean Rhys

As fans of Jane Eyre will probably know, Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel- or an implied prequel, at least- to Brontë’s classic love story, detailing the life of Bertha Antoinetta Mason (Rochester’s ‘mad woman in the attic’ first wife)  before and during the early days of her marriage to Rochester. It’s a novel which has always divided opinion, with one friend of mine telling me it was ‘bitter, feminist crap’ and others proclaiming its brilliance. I’ll admit I didn’t expect to like this novel, partly because I’m a Jane Eyre lover and I’m also not a big fan of colonial and postcolonial fiction. However, it turned out to be a very interesting read…

The novel is set a short while after the Abolition of Slavery in 1834. Antoinette Cosway is the daughter of a former slave owner and along with her disabled brother and widowed mother, has been somewhat abandoned in the Caribbean. The family does not fit in with the local black population, nor the new class of white immigrants settling in the Caribbean. There is a profound sense of isolation throughout the novel; indeed, the first line reads “They say that when trouble comes close ranks, so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks“. Although the peculiar societal position of the Cosway family is crucial to the story and creates the unique perspective of slaveowners as a victimised minority, it did irritate me that Rhys changed the time frame of the story to achieve this effect. Were she to have stuck to the time frame of Jane Eyre, Antoinette’s childhood would have taken place in the 1820s when slavery was still practised and her family would have been affluent, as well as belonging to the ruling class of Jamaica. Although Rhys’ changing of the time frame allows her to explore a fascinating transitional period in history, and one that has seldom been explored by other writers, it seems almost as though she’s done it to make Antoinette a victim from the off, and thus rendering Rochester more of a villain- essentially, being extra anti-establishment, just for the sake of it. It also irritated me that his infidelity was made much of, whereas hers was kept very quiet until the end, despite it being much more frequent.

However, although Rhys does present Rochester as the ‘bad guy’ in much of the novel, he is a victim too, of scheming on the part of his father and brother. Due to cultural influences and vicious rumours, he genuinely believes that his wife is his enemy. Rhys tells much of the story from Rochester’s perspective and so we are able to understand and sympathise with him, even if we know him to be mistaken. In the end, Antoinette and Rochester are both victims, of society and of each other.

Not only this, the novel helps the reader see Bertha Mason as something other than the symbol she is in Jane Eyre. She becomes a character with thoughts, feelings and fears, and Rhys’ beautiful, yet haunting, writing style draws us into the dark centre of her psyche as she becomes increasingly isolated and out-of-touch with reality. In fact, Rhys’ writing style is one of the best things about this novel, and makes it an absolute pleasure to read. It’s very ambiguous and full of hints and shadows rather concrete facts, which achieves a very appropriately disconcerting effect, since the novel deals with a mental breakdown. But Rhys’ prose isn’t the only thing that haunts the novel; Wide Sargasso Sea is haunted by the ghost of Bertha Mason, since as soon as you pick up the novel, you know it can only end in one way…

Wide Sargasso Sea is, in short, a fantastic novel. Its disturbing power borders on hypnotic, meaning that it won’t take you long to read it. You can enjoy it whether you’ve read Jane Eyre or not, and I suspect that the novel you read first probably impacts your perception of the other. Jean Rhys has created a masterpiece which is as beautiful, abstruse and troubled as the Caribbean itself.

Have YOU read Wide Sargasso Sea? How well do you think it interacted with Jane Eyre? It’s one of those novels I could discuss for hours and I’d really love to know what you think, so please please leave me a comment!

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Burn for Burn

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Burn for Burn – Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian

I downloaded this book in my search for escapism from examination related stress and despair, hoping for a juicy tale of scandal and revenge. And I have to say, even though the book didn’t quite have the mystery I was hoping for, it was pretty good and I read it very quickly. 

Burn for Burn is, as you might have guessed, all about revenge. Three girls- all of whom can be identified as one of the stereotypes in my earlier post (outwardly tough and sarcastic tomboy, rich and beautiful popular girl and shy, clever girl who doesn’t know how pretty she is)- form an unlikely alliance in order to seek revenge on those who have wronged them; three people who just happen to be in the same clique as Lillia, the aforementioned popular girl. Two of the ‘allies’ were formerly friends, giving the trio an interesting dynamic, but the inclusion of the third girl, Mary, means that the book isn’t all about past rivalries- it’s also very much about the changing present. I really enjoyed the complicated relationships in this book, not just between the trio but also between the protagonists and the people on whom they are hoping to exact revenge. Their motivations for revenge are individual but overlapping, and the characters’ feelings for one another become very tangled. Things become increasingly complicated as the plot progresses, but this makes it all the more enjoyable. After all, when is revenge simple? 

In addition to this, as the plot progresses, the schemes of revenge become increasingly nastier and have truly disastrous consequences. The plot is imaginative and my favourite thing about the novel, but it’s also not entirely unrealistic; though improbable, I can imagine wronged girls uniting to do this. Han and Vivian also present it in a realistic way- the characters struggle to cooperate at times and it’s certainly not all plain sailing. 

I also really liked the way that Han and Vivian conveyed things to the audience that the characters themselves don’t know; it’s clear that Mary is, or at least was, in love with Reeve- hence why she was so hurt by him- but she herself doesn’t know this and it’s implied very subtly, which I felt was very skilful. On top of this, I could really relate to the way Mary wanted a dramatic moment with Reeve but he barely noticed her- that’s pretty much my secondary school experience in a nutshell! Another great detail was that Rennie, the most fearsome and popular girl in school, wasn’t actually rich, but she treated everybody like scum anyway; there were several girls in my school who acted as though they were rich and had a right to put other people down, but in reality that wasn’t the case at all. 

All in all, Burn for Burn is an enjoyable read for teenage girls and a nice bit of escapism that is, thanks to the smaller plot details, of a higher calibre than most young adult fiction, even if it follows pretty much the same lines. I highly doubt it’ll win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but if you like scandal, secrets and revenge then this is perfect for you! 

Catch-22

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Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I’ve been waiting for the right time to blog about this book, and what better time than 22 minutes past midnight? For those of you who don’t know it, Catch-22 is a satirical work which recounts the story of Captain Yossarian and other members of a U.S. air force squadron based in Pianosa during the Second World War. Although it’s set in World War II, Catch-22 is actually more of a criticism of the ensuing Cold War, which is revealed through Heller’s use of anachronisms within the novel, for example the slogan “What’s good for M & M enterprises is good for the country” alludes to Charles Erwin Wilson’s statement to the Senate “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country”. The novel lays into the ridiculous causes of twentieth century political conflict and the chaos caused by bureaucracy, as well as the greed of capitalism that is masked behind an idea that everybody has an opportunity and everybody gets a share. 

The novel does take a while to get into, I’ll admit. The circular logic Heller uses and the repetitive conversations the characters have, particularly towards the start of the novel, mean that much concentration is required and it doesn’t make for a light read. Often the reader is given an impression of ridiculousness- but of course, this is the point Heller is trying to make; millions of lives were lost in the twentieth century due to the ridiculous decisions of men in positions of power. The advice I would give you here is perservere– personally, once I got past the chapter on Major Major I found that the novel was much more engaging, and more of a plot started to develop. Another of the novel’s features that make it often difficult to comprehend is the apparent lack of structure- although when you pay attention you realise that the novel actually is structured, the lack of division of the novel into ‘parts’ means that it often seems as though the chapters aren’t arranged into any clear sequence, but in fact they are and as the novel continues the plot becomes more apparent. The second half is definitely more enjoyable than the first half which, though interesting and containing much humorous satire, is often difficult to follow. Whilst at first I was thinking what a relief it would be to finish Catch-22, by the end of the novel I was sad to finish it. 

One of my favourite things about Catch-22 is that it is not a novel which glorifies bravery and dying for one’s country. Were World War III to break out, the chances are that each and every one of us would be asked to lay down our lives for our country, were it needed, without taking into consideration that this goes against one of the most basic human instincts; the need to survive. Heller does not portray Yossarian’s overwhelming desire to live as cowardly or shameful, but rather as natural- who wouldn’t want to save their own life, even during a war? I also found Yossarian’s viewpoint on the enemy’s attempts on his life amusing; he tells Clevinger that he fears they are trying to kill him, because they are shooting at him, and when Clevinger replies “they’re shooting at everybody”, Yossarian simply asks him “What difference does that make?”. Because really, what difference does it make if someone shoots at you in a battlefield or in your own front garden? Either way, they want you dead. If you kill someone in battle or in the local supermarket the end result is still the same- they’re still dead and you’re still responsible. It’s an idea that I’d never really thought of before and it has made me think more deeply about the circumstances surrounding death- if you die for your country, at the end of the day you’re still dead, so how glorious is it really?

On a slightly less morbid note, the novel really is very funny in places. The last chapter left me with a very wide smile on my face and made me laugh out loud several times. In other places the humour is more subtle, but it runs throughout. On the other hand, as the novel progresses it becomes increasingly gory- there is a horrific incident of a character being severed in half, for example. However, in what for me is the most gruesome scene in the novel there is no blood split. The scene in which Aarfy is totally unaffected by Yossarian’s all-consuming rage is absolutely horrific, as there is nothing Yossarian can do to affect this slimy, sinister man. The feeling of blinding rage and total impotence are truly horrifying, and I felt a little shaken by the scene; it was like something out a nightmare, and is a work of considerable skill.

In Catch-22 Heller exposes the injustice and absurdity of twenty-first century and will make you feel frustrated by the ridiculousness that arose from the bureaucracy. Catch-22 is a book which makes you question what you thought you knew about authority and patriotism, and will, eventually, absorb you and cause you to long for Yossarian’s survival almost as strongly as he himself does. I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys being introduced to new ideas or has an interest in twenty-first century literature. Personally I think that everyone should read it, but I know not everyone would enjoy it, in spite of its genius; I, however, most certainly did. 

Have YOU read Catch-22? I’d love to know what you thought, so please leave a comment!

On the Road

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On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I was incredibly excited to read this novel; described as a tale of sex, drugs and rock and roll and a defining work of the Beat generation, I expected a hedonistic thrill ride centred around some illuminating philosophies on life and love, but the book fell somewhat short of my expectations. I’m apprehensive about criticising a work that has been so greatly esteemed, but I really wasn’t particularly impressed by this book. Bob Dylan is quoted on the cover as having said “it changed my life, like it changed everyone else’s” and I know at its time of publication the book probably made more of an impact but quite frankly I failed to see what was so “life-changing” about it. That’s not to say it isn’t well written with interesting characters- it is. But it didn’t really speak to me on a personal level, perhaps because I can’t imagine anything worse than hitchhiking and having no place to call home. 

For those of you who don’t know ‘On the Road’, it’s the story of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty as they hitchhike around America. Sal is a recently divorced writer and Dean is an eccentric- one might even say crazy- man who is the catalyst for Sal’s travels. Sal confesses that he has always been attracted to the ‘crazy ones’; he loves to follow and observe them and yearns to be wherever they are. This was actually one of the few parts of the novel that I could relate to, that need to be where the interesting people are and to be part of their world. Inspired by Dean, Sal begins to hitchhike across America and gets dragged into Dean’s crazy world, but eventually removes himself after realising how selfish Dean is, and recognising the one-sided nature of their relationship. 

One of the main problems I had with ‘On the Road’ was Dean Moriarty himself. Sal practically hero-worships him and he is very much presented as a great philosopher with genius ideas, but I couldn’t see the sense in his philosophies or relate to them. Rather than seeing Dean’s brilliance, I had the impression that he was making up nonsense! On top of this, I didn’t enjoy Sal’s drug-fuelled ‘epiphany’ about life either- it was hard to work out what he was saying and quite frankly I just didn’t agree with most of his ideas. That’s just me personally, but rather than finding ‘On the Road’ life changing and inspiring, I found it to be pretentious. 

I also had an issue with Kerouac’s erratic writing style- it made the book very difficult to follow and put me on edge; I almost felt someone was speaking very quickly to me. However, the style fits the story perfectly and contributes significantly to the book’s whole “character”- it just wasn’t a character I particularly liked.

Perhaps I’m being too uptight about this. I go to parties, I enjoy travelling and I love free-spirited people like Sal and Dean, but Dean and his garbled philosophies completely ruined the book for me. I think in order to enjoy ‘On the Road’, one has to like the character of Dean Moriarty but I found him despicable. Before reading the book I was expecting Dean to be superficially charming and selfish but I found that all of the hype surrounding him was empty. Consequently, I felt the same about the esteem given to the novel as a whole- it really just wasn’t for me.

Have YOU read ‘On the Road’? What did you think? Let me know! 

Book tag questions

I’ve just finished the most incredible, mind-warping (if that’s a word) book and I can’t wait to post about it, but first I thought I’d find another book tag to do because I quite enjoyed doing yesterday’s ‘The Seven Deadly Sins of Reading’ tag!

Q: How do you organise your bookshelf? 

I don’t have a real organisational structure to my shelf. A few months ago I got bored and tried to bring some order into it, but it was really for aesthetic purposes. I keep series together when possible, although my shelves aren’t wide enough to have every single series together. Harry Potter resides on a low shelf for easy access but that’s it as far as the logic of positioning goes. I’ve kept all my Penguin modern classics- such as The Crucible and Animal Farm– together on the top shelf, along with other ‘intellectual’ books like The Secret History, and then all the classics I bought at the garden centre on a middle shelf because they’ve all got the same cover and I bought them all at the same time. Then there are loads of books which don’t stack neatly, so they’re just piled on top!

Q: What advice would you give to other book reviewers?

I haven’t been doing this for that long, but I’d say you’ve just got to stick at it. I cringe when reading my first few posts because they were utter rubbish, but I’ve since got into the swing of things and I feel like my reviews are more structured. Including pictures is a good idea because it’s aesthetically pleasing, and I’d also say that you don’t just have to write about novels; you could talk about broader literary issues too!

Q: What are your favourite books?

This question is always such a difficult one to answer! The Harry Potter series has had a big impact on my life and helped me cope with some hard times during secondary school, so that series will always be close to my heart. I also absolutely love The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini because it’s so beautifully written, so desperately sad and such an incredible story. Gone with the Wind is another book I can’t get enough off and I just adore The Great Gatsby, so much so that I read it in about 24 hours! A childhood favourite is Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, although as I’ve grown older I’ve realised just how genius those works and understood things that never even occurred to me before. I find that the Noughts and Crosses trilogy is just breathtaking, Jane Eyre is one of the most absorbing books I’ve ever read and The Picture of Dorian Grey is just pure genius. I’m getting gushy now. Oh, and Frankenstein, because it’s a truly fascinating novel. Okay, I’ll stop now.

Q: Where do you like to read?

I like to read in a quiet place so that I can focus my full attention on the book, and I like to be warm and comfortable- I’m like a cat. My favourite place to read is lying on my bed, but I also really enjoy reading on public transport for some reason. I also love sitting in the sun and reading because it’s just blissful. But really, it doesn’t matter that much- if you like reading, you can’t be fussy about where you do it. I can’t read in the car though because it makes me feel sick, which I hate because reading would otherwise be the perfect way to whittle away long journeys!

Q: What is your favourite book cover?

Well, the golden rule of reading is ‘never judge a book by its cover’, so I don’t feel that this should matter too much. I do love the cover of Gone with the Wind because it’s just so romantic and the covers of the Noughts and Crosses trilogy because they’re so simple yet eye catching. But really, it doesn’t matter to me!

I challenge YOU to do this book tag!

 

30 day book challenge; day 17, the shortest book you’ve read

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Animal Farm by George Orwell

This may not actually be the shortest book I have ever read, as it’s hard to keep track. Obviously the books I read as a child were shorter but this must be one of the shortest adult novels on my bookshelf. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible it shorter but that’s a play so I wasn’t sure if it would count. Anyway, Animal Farm is a brilliant allegorical novel and I really recommend it!

(Sorry for the rushed post, I’m busy busy busy today!)

30 day book challenge; day 16, the longest book you’ve read

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Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

This book is truly epic. It may be 1011 pages long but it certainly doesn’t feel like that- yes, it does capture ten years of Scarlett O’Hara’s life but it is also incredibly absorbing and you won’t want it to end. It depicts the extent to which war can change a nation and also a person. Scarlett starts off as shallow, selfish and manipulative but by the end of the book she is incredibly hardened, but also (in my opinion) a much more likeable character. You can’t fail to respect her strength and the way in which she works tirelessly to provide for her family. At the start of the book she was a largely unlikeable teenage girl but by the end of the book she is a flawed yet very admirable character. This book really is about change and its length doesn’t feel excessive, so don’t let it put you off!

What’s the longest book YOU’ve read? Let me know in a comment!

30 day book challenge; day nine- a book that makes you sick

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Lolita  by Vladimir Nabokov

I do appreciate that this book is beautifully written and an amazing story and I did enjoy reading it. It’s great literature, for sure. But the story was also creepy. Humbert’s lust for ‘nymphets’, justified by his assertion that they are not normal children, unnerved me. I can’t think of Lolita as a love story, but rather a twisted tale of desire. I don’t think it should be banned or anything like that but the story is essentially one of paedophilia, and that in itself is a little sickening.